Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Why I am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

I should read more books like this. It really made me think and has me thinking still. It should be obvious why the title of this book of essays appealed to me, and I must say, the essay with the same title was the most interesting of the group. It, in fact, is not an essay, but a transcript of a speech Russell gave somewhere at some time, and was easily the most readable. There are several areas the Russell seems to go too far in—like his belief that as a gigantic collection of atoms which unwillingly obey natural laws, people are not truly responsible for their own thoughts and actions, and the focus for criminals should be on rehabilitation rather than punishment—but his basic philosophical view is one that has a lot of affinity for me. Our actions and our societies should be based on an ethic which is designed to maximize human happiness and minimize human suffering. Elements of religious teaching which support this ethic and have foundations in fact and evidence should be kept, while elements of religious teaching which contradict this ethic or have no foundation in fact or evidence should be disregarded, regardless of how many people say that’s the way God wants it to be. Under this construct, Russell does away with the whole concept of sin. Sin is acting contrary to God’s law, but if God’s law makes no sense, even if following it is in the best interest of personal and societal happiness, it is actually counterproductive to guilt and shame people into obeying it by calling transgressions sin, because eventually someone will discover that there is no reason behind it, and then they are likely to throw the whole system of morals out for suspicion that it is all equally hollow. Russell’s favorite example to cite for this circumstance and many others is the women married to a syphilitic man. The church says both that they must not divorce and that they cannot use birth control, compelling the couple to a life of celibacy or to the birth of syphilitic children. They also cannot seek sexual relations outside the marriage. But none of these laws can increase the amount of human happiness in the world. In this case, in fact, they can only increase the amount of human suffering. And none of them have any basis in evidence or fact. Why can’t they divorce, why can’t they use birth control, why can’t they have affairs? Because God says it’s sinful to do these things. Why is it sinful? Because God says so. Something else that came across clearly in the book was that Russell was obviously writing about the church as it existed in the early 20th century and not the church as it exists today. The church of today is vastly different and way more tolerant than the one Russell wrote about, just as the church Russell wrote about was vastly different and way more tolerant than the one that existed during the time of the Inquisition. This reality begs two observations, one my own and one Russell’s. Mine: What kind of religion is it that claims at all times to represent the fixed and unalterable will of God and yet sees such change in its own dogma throughout its history? Russell’s: All of the change we have seen to church dogma over time has been not the result of the church’s own progressiveness, but rather a result of the pressure placed upon it and our society by freethinkers. + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell on Amazon on Wikipedia + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

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